Pedantic Mondegreen

A few days ago, the same friend whose book I so gravely defaced (see previous post) told me about Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site,* which looks likely to fill many hours of my time in the next few weeks, though I didn’t actually get around to visiting it until I Googled the word ‘mondegreen’ to write this post. As Quinion puts it, a mondegreen involves “creative mishearing of lyrics”. The classic example is Jimi Hendrix’s “ ’scuse me while I kiss the sky”, which many have misheard as “ ’scuse me while I kiss this guy”. Quinion also tracks down the etymology, and it turns out that ‘mondegreen’ is itself a mondegreen:

I discovered that the name was coined by Sylvia Wright, in an article called “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”, in Harper’s Magazine in 1954. It appears she had as a child misheard the last line of a famous old Scottish ballad called The Bonny Earl o’ Murray (sometimes spelled Moray) and thought it went:

Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands,
O where hae ye been?
Thay hae slain the Earl o’ Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

“How romantic to have them both die together,” she thought, and was bitterly disappointed when the last line turned out to be the much more prosaic: “And hae laid him on the green”. However, she turned her disappointment to our benefit by changing her elegant-sounding mistake into a truly aristocratic name for the whole class of aural misinterpretations.

I have one small quibble: surely the version Sylvia Wright misheard was “And laid him on the green”, without the “hae” — unless she misheard that, too.

To come at last to my pedantic mondegreen, there is a bluegrass or traditional country song whose title I cannot recall, though I have heard it in several different versions. Whenever I hear someone sing that love “fades like the mornin’ do”, my immediate reaction is “hey, shouldn’t that be ‘fades as the mornin’ does’?” It always takes a second or two to realize, or remember, that love actually fades “like the mornin’ dew”.

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*If only Quinion were working at Walt Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, instead of somewhere in the U.K., he could set a world record for alliteration.

Postscript: (5/22)

It appears that I was wrong in thinking the college in Walla Walla is ‘Walt Whitman’, not just ‘Whitman’. (See first comment.) Perhaps my memory was led astray by the alliteration, adding a bit more to make it more extreme. Perhaps I just assumed that a Whitman College would be named after the most famous Whitman. Or perhaps whoever first mentioned the college to me was under the same misapprehension.

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2 Responses to Pedantic Mondegreen

  1. Alfred M. Kriman says:

    Your assumption regarding hae in the correct version of the misheard lyric is correct, unless I transcribed the lyric (directly from the back issue of Harper’s) incorrectly in 2001. See <http://www.plexoft.com/SBF/M04.html#mondegreen>.

  2. Greg Kindall says:

    Sorry, it’s not Walt Whitman but Marcus and Narcissa, early missionaries along the Snake River, after whom Whitman College is named. Walt Whitman College is apparently a SUNY Stony Brook institution. But you did say “if only”…

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